Temperance—A Pandemic Virtue

"What trumps Death, number thirteen?" "Why, number fourteen, of course. Temperance!" Here go I, looking for a bit of exemplary virtue in the Tarot in the midst of this World Pandemic of 2020, stumbling across a message of hope specifically stating that humans will survive the dark night of plague, and arrive at a bright morning when it’s all done. Waite has overlaid an extraordinary, two-part message upon Temperance. It is that firstly, though many may die, God made a promise to never kill off the human race (again). Secondly, that the light and joy of the divine kingdom, AKA the second coming, is imminent. You don’t have to believe in Jesus to be moved by these messages. Think of it as a perfect example of Tarot’s ability to touch a person deep inside with an unexpected insight which happened to be exactly what was needed, when it was needed. And while those who sit out the pandemic on a sofa with a drink in hand may think of temperance as something having to do with alcohol, it is indeed a virtue daily practiced by many essential workers, either through dedication or by necessity. The Temperance of RWS promises them heaven. With references to self-restraint, survival after plague, and the promise that God won’t kill off all mankind, Temperance may be the most appropriate card of the Tarot deck for us at this time, during the pandemic of 2020. The message of Temperance in RWS is "hold on, have faith, we’ve nearly arrived at a better place."

Read more

Justice – Imperial Astraea

What we talk about when we talk about Justice today is, understandably, quite different than how a well known member of British society who grew up in the reign of Victoria might have spoken about it. Or for that matter, a rich member of European renaissance society playing a game with the cards we now call tarot. This article traces some of the symbolism of the Justice major arcanum, as well as looking closely at A.E. Waite’s description of it. By considering Astraea, the Faerie Queene, several immortal poets and Augustus Caesar himself, we find that our modern concept of Justice—particularly in time of pandemic—may be far divorced from empire and the divine right of kings. Yet Waite places the Virgin Queen herself, Elizabeth I, right there in the card you drew, the one that we talk about when we talk about Justice.

Read more

Strength – Christian Mauls Lion

The classical idea of the virtue of Strength has little to do with physical strength. It involves a physical or metaphysical confrontation with a threat that must be overcome, or through perseverance, survived. Waite, in his Strength major arcanum, adds another element: the Holy Spirit. There was historical precedent, for the Roman Catholic Church had already linked the two. Waite’s chief graphical element making the link is the lemniscate, otherwise known as the infinity sign. A number of visual references additionally may tie Strength to various Christian martyrs, Saint Andrew in particular, and of course, to Androcles and his friend, the lion. But beyond the Christian mysticism, the “spin” that Waite adds to the classical virtue, that of overcoming and persevering based upon the strength of deeply held moral belief (or faith) may be appropriate for our own time of the plague. Such belief does not have to be religious. Just knowing right from wrong is probably enough to “persevere” and do the right thing no matter what the cost. Nurses and doctors treat patients even if personal protective equipment is in short supply because helping patients is their deepest belief. Making a grocery run for a neighbor who is temporarily unemployed, when you’re also temporarily unemployed is also a form of Strength. Some of us may not survive, but I hope that we put up a strong fight. Maybe Strength is a good starting place.

Read more

The Tower, the Black Death, the Antichrist and the Apocalypse

Recent scholarship indicates that the first wave of the Black Death which swept Europe in the fourteenth century convinced Petrarch that apocalypse was nigh. He identified Avignon, site of the immense Papal Palace built by Pope Clement VI as a contemporary Tower of Babel. The flowers on the papal coat of arms of Clement, sculpted on the exterior of the palace, bear a remarkable resemblance to what Waite calls the “mystic rose” on Death’s banner. This provides not only a minor tarot mystery, but an insight into Waite’s “curation” and re-use of the jumble bag of historical tarot symbols in his seemingly unbounded endeavor to inject Christian mysticism into the modern tarot he and Colman Smith popularized so successfully.

Read more

Two Questions On the Hermit

Two questions about the anonymous but enlightened hermit: (1) who is he and (2) why the six pointed star? Less mysterious but also important is the question of why Waite included the very, very negative secondary set of upright divinatory meanings in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot? As we examine the questions, we’ll find links to Father Time, the Christian God the Father, and the head of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. We’ll also stumble across that famous number, 666. In the end, the identity of the Hermit is in the eye of the beholder, since he seems to hold more than one identity. But that may be appropriate for a major arcanum associated not just with prudence, but also with dissimulation and treason.

Read more

The Star, Goddess at First Light

You’ve got to hand it to Pamela Colman Smith on this one. She took one of the least attractive cards in the Tarot de Marseilles deck, and without substituting any major new elements, turned it into one of the prettiest cards in the RWS deck. But new or old look, The Star raises many questions. Who is she? What Star in particular? Why eight points on the star? Why eight stars? Its order in the majors is important, for one. It is first light after the darkness of The Tower. This is why it’s dawn. And the Goddess appears to be the female goddess from the dawn of civilization herself: Ishtar. There are a number of reasons for the eight stars of eight points each, some of which Waite rolled into his mystical Christian skewing of the tarot. Waite was as heavy-handed on this one as Colman Smith’s hand was deft. The Star is one of those cards where stories and myths abound; and it is through those stories and myths that we can understand it better.

Read more

The Empress of Light, Aphrodite Pandemos

Of the first seven major arcana, two represent the dual aspects of Venus; and one other represents the eternal question of what to do about her? Waite described the Empress as “the woman clothed with the sun, as Gloria Mundi and the veil of the Sanctum Sanctorum.” The High Priestess is pictured in front of the Sanctum Sanctorum, and is the representative of the mysteries in the darkness behind it. So to visit the realm of the High Priestess, Waite seems to say, you go through the Empress. This opposition of light and dark qualities directly relates to the neoplatonic view of the two natures of Venus. There is, according to Wikipedia, an “earthly Aphrodite Pandemos, representing carnal love and beauty, and the heavenly Aphrodite Urania representing a higher and more spiritual love.” Waite’s Empress is very Roman, as we shall see; but then, what else would we expect from a man writing at the height of the British Empire? The RWS Empress is inextricably tied to the material world.

Read more